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The abandonment of technology

Are we working on the right problems?

Right now the Space Shuttle Discovery is in orbit for the last time, and docked with the International Space Station (ISS). On its return to Earth the orbiter will be decommissioned and displayed in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. Just two more shuttle flights, Endeavour in mid-April, and Atlantis in late-June, are scheduled before the shuttle program is brought to and end.

Tracy Caldwell Dyson in the Cupola module of the International Space Station
Tracy Caldwell Dyson in the Cupola module of the International Space Station observing the Earth below during Expedition 24 in 2010. (Credit: Expedition 24, NASA)

Toward the end of last year I came across an interesting post about the abandonment of technology by Cameron Locke. A couple of months later on I read an article by Kyle Munkittrick who argues that the future is behind us, or at least that our current visions of the future are outdated compared the current technology:

The year is 2010. America has been at war for the first decade of the 21st century and is recovering from the largest recession since the Great Depression. Air travel security uses full-body X-rays to detect weapons and bombs. The president, who is African-American, uses a wireless phone, which he keeps in his pocket, to communicate with his aides and cabinet members from anywhere in the world … Video games can be controlled with nothing but gestures, voice commands and body movement. In the news, a rogue Australian cyberterrorist is wanted by world’s largest governments and corporations for leaking secret information over the world wide web; spaceflight has been privatized by two major companies, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX.

I’ve been thinking about these two articles ever since, and Discovery’s last flight brought these thoughts to the front of my mind. On the face of things the two posts espouse very different view points, however the underlying line of argument in both is very similar.

The future is already here and we may be standing at a crucial decision point in our history. Forces are pulling us in both directions. On one hand the rate of technological progress is clearly accelerating, on the other, the resources we have on hand to push that progress are diminishing at an ever-increasing rate. In a world of declining resources, and increasingly unreliable energy supply, you have to wonder whether our current deep economic recession is a sign of things to come. Will the next few decades be a time of economic contraction and an overall lower standard of living?

Big problems, unaddressed

At the 2008 Web 2.0 Expo, Tim O’Reilly argued that there are still big problems to solve and he asked people to go after the big, hard, problems.

And what are the best and the brightest working on? You have to ask yourself, are we working on the right things?

I think Tim was right, and I don’t think much has changed in the last couple of years. I’m worried that we’re chasing the wrong goals, we’re not yet going after the big, hard, problems that Tim was talking about. Solving them might make all the difference.

While not all big problems are related to the space program by any means, the successful first launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket last December has given me some hope that some of our best and brightest aren’t just throwing sheep at one another or selling plush toys.

Despite this, I see signs of a growth in pseudo-science, and an inability of even the educated middle classes to be able to tell the difference between it and more trustworthy scientific undertakings. There is also a worrying smugness, almost pride, among many people that they “just don’t understand computers.” While some of us are pushing the boundaries, it appears we may be leaving others behind.

We abandoned the moon, then faster flight. What’s next?

The fastest westbound trans-atlantic flight from London Heathrow to New York JFK was on the 7th of February 1996, by a BA Concorde. It made the journey in just under 3 hours. Depending on conditions, the flight typically takes between 7 and 8 hours on a normal airplane. As a regular on the LHR to SFO and LAX routes, I spend a lot of time unemployed over Greenland. I do sometimes wish it was otherwise.

A few weeks ago I watched an Airbus A380 taxi toward take-off at Heathrow, and I felt a deep sense of shame that as a species we’d traded a thing of aeronautical beauty for this lumbering giant. Despite the obvious technical achievement, it feels like a step backwards.

I’m young enough, if only just, that I don’t remember the Moon landings. However when I was a child my father told me about how, as a younger man, he had avidly watched the broadcast of the Moon landings, and I have a friend whose father was in Mission Control with a much closer view. In the same way I can tell my son that we once were able to cross the Atlantic in just 3 hours, and that once it was possible to arrive in New York before you left London. I do wonder if things go the wrong way — and we enter an age of declining possibilities and narrowing horizons — whether he’ll believe me.

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  • http://donmcarthur.com Don McArthur

    Bah. We’ve wasted enough money on trying to keep meat-in-space alive, money that could have been better spent on far more fruitful scientific endeavors. Seed the solar system with networked, A.I.-equipped robotic craft, build the superconducting supercollider, etc., etc.

    Anyway, turning away from space flight is our fate – it’s the answer to The Fermi Paradox – all technically competent sophont species do a duck-dive into virtual reality in the face of the enormity of interstellar distances and the inevitability of cell death.

    Ready to upload, Scotty!

  • http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/au/3904 Alasdair Allan

    Certainly from my point of view seeding the solar system with networked, A.I.-equipped robotic craft, and building the superconducting supercollider come under the heading of big, hard, problems. I’m fairly sure TIm would agree…

  • bob

    Part of the problem might just be with the continuation of the state of events that William Gibson once described: the future is here, it just isn’t widely distributed yet.

    Virgin Galactic is a great technical achievement to be sure, but billionaires taking even cooler vacations doesn’t really do a lot of good for the average human being.

    The middle class (the people who were supposed to inhabit the O’neil habitats of yore) is rapidly disappearing. And all the while most of the world’s technical innovations go toward solving their so called problems. But, as Warren Ellis said, a robot phone is no replacement for a proper future.

    The big problems aren’t being addressed, have never really been addressed, and will continue to go unaddressed. The moon landings, while a great technical feat to be sure, were mostly undertaken as a publicity stunt for western capitalism.

    The great mass of humanity will advance or decline in fits and starts along with the incremental improvements or losses of technology. Same as it ever was. Most of the folks on the internet are just too upper-class or too enamored of retro futurism and pining for flying cars to realize there is no grand plan we are heading for. All there is then, is the same stumbling mass of sometimes transcendent apes that there has always been. The fact that the future didn’t work out how you thought it should have really doesn’t matter… to anyone or anything.

  • Thomas

    I think the development does proceed, you are just making the error, that it doesn’t do it the way you want (or expect).
    As an example, we exchanged something like the A380 for the concord. Sure the concord was faster, but the development of the air travel in the last decades (just like any other transport) has been: efficiency. Air travel used to be exclusive and expansive, now it is a commodity. For less resources we can transport more people to more destinations. I’d rather think if we would throw more resources into developing aircrafts that need the same resources to transport 100 (rich) people across the atlantic than 400 it would go into the wrong direction. As of now I think the same about manned spacetravel. There is no need, very little gain, but too much resources – as opposed to communication (mobile phones, internet, etc..), which directly gives our civilization a boost.

  • Dave

    “On one hand the rate of technological progress is clearly accelerating, on the other, the resources we have on hand to push that progress are diminishing at an ever-increasing rate. In a world of declining resources, and increasingly unreliable energy supply, you have to wonder whether our current deep economic recession is a sign of things to come. “

    Jevons paradox has been known for quite some time, and yet, I see little evidence that we are doing something about it, at least not on a global scale, which is what will need to take place. In order to slow the momentum of the human race, governments may need to introduce a “green” tax to offset the efficiencies of technological progress.

  • Alex Tolley

    “…the resources we have on hand to push that progress are diminishing at an ever-increasing rate. In a world of declining resources, and increasingly unreliable energy supply…”

    You’re sweating over the wrong things. Oil energy may be finally becoming unreliable, but we are in transition to different energy sources. We are just going through teh throws of teh upheaval.

    As for Concorde, while it was a magnificent achievement, it was never economic. You may dislike subsonic jumbo liners, but they are the most efficient, cheapest form of air travel and have grown the world’s tourist industry. We’ll see supersonic flight again, it just will be for the business jet class.

    The human spaceflight program? If we do get it going again, it will be for commercial reasons, not pork barrel, time wasting, stunts. We need concerted efforts to reduce the cost of access to space and cheaper, more efficient spacecraft for deep space travel. That will require in flight refueling and in situ resource usage. Maybe the US is not the nation to do that, but another nations[s] will.

  • http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/au/3904 Alasdair Allan

    Dave, “… In order to slow the momentum of the human race, governments may need to introduce a ‘green’ tax to offset the efficiencies of technological progress.” I think you’ve very much misunderstood my line of argument if you think I’m saying that we should slow technological progress. We’re in a hole, and the only thing that’s going to stand a chance of getting us out of it is the accelerating rate of progress. What I’m worried about is that the very people that should be working to get us out of the hole might be being distracted by the pretty lights along the way, as Tim put it the best and brightest of us really have to buckle down and look to the future and work on not just the interesting problems, but the big ones.

  • Chuck Burke

    I’d have to say that (clean, inexpensive and nearly infinite) energy would be one of the big ideas that needs to be resolved. With enough energy we could solve a tremendous amount of other problems.

  • Yolanda

    I think the key is to reduce the number of flights people take. Flights to France for example, really need to be stopped. Short haul flights are damaging to our environment and no matter how “green” they are, the earth is being considerably harmed.

    In other service green taxes are important. People need to drive, but let’s tax them for it. Let’s have greener roads, greener airlines a greener Luton Airport, a greener Heathrow Terminal 5. It’s a start at least.

  • petrecon

    How about using a little bit of technology to solve a small problem?
    Whether Yolanda really intended to spam the Comments stream, or was uncertain that the post had been ingested and thus kept submitting, can’t your Comments engine suppress exactly duplicate content arriving within a few minutes span?

  • Paul Winkler

    What a defeatist attitude, Don M! Robots in space is great science, but not a patch on what we’d learn there ourselves. There’s no romance (and no $$) without manned exploration.